Not to Disturb

As the second chapter of Not to Disturb opens, Muriel Spark pauses to describe the long drawing room in Baron Klopstock’s expansive country house: “Many objects in this large room are on a miniature scale,” we are told, including a group of “what appear to be family portraits.” Have the Klopstocks always inclined towards miniatures, the narrative voice speculates, or perhaps:

“…these little portraits have been cleverly copied, more recently, from some more probable larger originals.”

Not to Disturb, the most miniature of Spark’s novels, also feels as if it has been distilled from something larger and more probable. Borrowing from many genres – the Gothic (a storm literally lights up its middle section), the country house murder (with its own locked room scenario), and the aristocratic sagas of Waugh and Powell (amusingly the BBC series Upstairs Downstairs premiered the year it was published) – it retains the unities of time and place associated with classical drama, delivering five chapters in place of five acts. As Peter Kemp has pointed out:

“Its narrative technique – all characters are externally presented, only their actions and their speech recorded – brings it close to a transcript of something occurring on stage.”

The action takes place ‘above stairs’ but the Baron and Baroness barely feature, arriving separately only to lock themselves in a room with one of their secretaries, Victor P, delivering strict instructions that they are not to be disturbed. As in a Jacobean tragedy (Webster is quoted on the opening page), however, their fate has already been decided, as Lister, the butler, explains:

“To all intents and purposes they are already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.”

“They haunt the house like insubstantial bodies while still alive,” he later says; and when Mr McGuire refuses to believe the Baron is ‘no more’ as he can hear his voice, Lister replies: “Let us not strain after vulgar chronology.” The two friends which Victor arrives with are dismissed: “They don’t come into the story.”

Lister is the mastermind behind the servants’ scheme. Their intention is to make as much money as they can by selling the Baron and Baroness’s scandalous story to the press (privileged journalists are already waiting in a hotel room), as well as Hollywood:

“The popular glossy magazines have replaced the servants’ hall in modern society. Our position of privilege is unparalleled in history.”

Even when wrong-footed, Lister quickly adapts. Discovering that the madman in the attic (a further Gothic twist) is the Baron’s brother, rather than a relative of the Baroness, and therefore his heir, he arranges an immediate marriage to a pregnant housemaid.

The Baron and Baroness’ life is, indeed, scandalous, one in which sexual gratification, with numerous partners, plays the central role. (“The Baron Klopstocks were obsessed with sex.”) That this is entirely superficial and emotionless suggests that ‘not to disturb’ might be a family motto. Ironically, their deaths are expected as a result of the Baroness not “playing the game” – as one of the servants comments, “she did a Lady Chatterley on him,” that is fell in love with one of her many lovers – Victor. This internal change is noticed by others externally – for example, when she stops dying her hair:

“Why did she suddenly start to go natural? She must have started to be sincere with someone.”

Her sincerity is unique in a novel where appearance is all we have, and it is made quite clear that cannot be trusted. The Baron’s house is filled with antique furniture but only recently built. The parquet floor, for example, belonged to a foreign king who took it with him when he had to flee his homeland:

“Royalty always do when they have to leave. They take everything, like stage companies who need their props.”

Meanwhile Lister stage-manages photographs for the press, and taped interviews, susceptible to editing. Even the jokes make the same point:

“’You look like a Secretary of State.’
‘Thank you sir,’ says Lister.
‘It isn’t a compliment,’ says the prince.”

Not to Disturb is Spark at her sharpest, shining the pinhead while pressing it home:

“One of my motives is to provoke the reader; to startle as well as to please.”

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5 Responses to “Not to Disturb”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Spark just seems to get darker and darker! One day I’d love to read her work from start to finish chronologically!

    • 1streading Says:

      I think this is possibly her darkest period I am in. It has been a pleasure to read her works chronologically – an experience to be recommended for any author.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Not a Spark I am terribly familiar with, but you’ve made it sound so intriguing that I’ve made a mental note to investigate further. I like the idea of her borrowing elements from various genres to create something that is entirely her own!

  3. The Hothouse by the East River | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] toyed with the murder mystery (without murder or mystery) in Not to Disturb, Spark turned her hand to a different genre in The Hothouse by the East River: the ghost story. […]

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